Can zapping nerves heal? DARPA wants to know

Flexible fibers developed by Polina Anikeeva at MIT are designed to activate nerves with light and record electric activity in spinal cord nerves.
Flexible fibers developed by Polina Anikeeva at MIT are designed to activate nerves with light and record electric activity in spinal cord nerves.

Gently shocking a nerve on your foot or arm may be a better treatment for some conditions than swallowing a pill. Researchers have been gathering evidence that the nerves reaching across the body can function as toggles for the organs they pass through, and federal agencies are amping up funding to find out more.

This week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency picked the first seven groups that will be funded as part of its $80 million Electric Prescriptions, or “ElectRx,” program.

One of the groups funded by the grant is led by Polina Anikeeva, a professor a MIT who has been working on ways to stimulate specific neurons in the body using fibers or nanoparticles.

The project funded by DARPA will investigate how nanoparticles could be sent to gather around specific nerves, and activate them with heat. These tests are planned on small animals first.

In addition to ElectRx, the National Institutes of Health has allocated $248 million as part of its Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (or SPARC) program to discover the benefits of optical and electric stimulation. The program picked 12 awardees in September.

Zapping key nerves with a current, ultrasound, or with light is expected to treat a range of conditions, among them type II diabetes, hypertension, and heart failure, but also mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors are still filling in their understanding about why that is the case.

Such therapy has shown promise for some conditions. As the Boston Globe reported earlier this month, preliminary findings from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh showed that running a current via electrodes attached to the toe had a better outcome than pills for a small group of people with hyperactive bladder syndrome.  One proposed advantage in this and other conditions is that the electric treatment comes with less side effects than other traditional therapies.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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